Everyone is thinking it, but no one seems to have the heart to say it. We’re excited, of course, but within that there is an underlying tension. See, in many ways, Robert Glasper embodies our narrative of progressive musical thought. His tangential take(s) on classic jazz idioms has become what innovation sounds like. To see him honored is nothing short of encouraging, if not completely astonishing. Complications arise when we acknowledge the area in which he is being recognized. Robert Glasper—R&B Album of the Year.
“The piano-playing elephant in the room.”
It’s pretty comical, really, if you think about it in that “laugh so I don’t cry” sort of way. What Glasper (and a select few) is doing right now can be described as “structured deviance.” He’s taking the music off the beaten path, whilst maintaining absolute control of the wheel. Traditional vehicles of thought simply cannot keep up. It’s like capturing water with your bare hands. You just can’t do it.
Robert Glasper, the “R&B Man.” Fancy that.
These were my thoughts going into Friday night. It made for an intriguing backdrop to the pianist’s much-anticipated set. Recreating the classic works of Stevie Wonder, I can appreciate the fact that he, the odd man out in this Grammy enclave, would be the artist engaging one of R&B’s greatest songbooks.
But you can’t speak of Robert Glasper without speaking of his surrounding crew.
When I think of Stevie Wonder’s “Visions,” I think of that understated, yet impactful bassline. However, when Derrick Hodge is playing, that bassline becomes the heavy breathing in a quiet room. It almost scares you. I’ve never felt someone play their accompanying role with the vivacity of a soloist. That bassline, the way he played it, will haunt me in the best ways imaginable.
And then there was Lalah Hathaway. Serving as the featured vocalist on that very same record, she, too, played an integral role, but did so in a way that completely changed what would have been a relatively straightforward transcription. “Visions” is a philosophical piece, bordering existential in its ideology, and yet her voice—it’s delicate, warm tonality—betrays the moment with an injection of sensuality. Situated amongst the dimly lit Harlem Stage, even if you wanted to cry foul, you couldn’t. It just worked.
On harmonica, for a brief, yet memorable moment was Gregoire Maret. What I did not know was that you can really play the harmonica. We’re not talking about the technical element of the instrument (which he does brilliantly, I might add). We’re talking about what Little Richard did on the keys, what Chuck Berry did on the guitar. We’re talking about the difference between someone who was “singing” and someone who was “sangin,’” as they might say in the black church. With every other note, Maret dipped and swayed as his bended knees supported a man unbridled. To watch this seemingly mild-mannered individual take off his metaphorical cool was perhaps the most amusingly captivating moment of the night. It was showmanship at its finest and most unexpected.
The cast certainly rounded out the night, even stealing the show at times, but it always goes back to Glasper.
What I most appreciated about the show was how little he actually did in reworking each song. The problem with most covers is that people want to do too much. Thinking that you’re going to completely reinvent a Stevie record is actually pretty arrogant, bordering on insanity. Glasper seemed to understand this. Instead, the changes made were subtle. With “You’ve Got It Bad Girl,” he kept the composition relatively faithful to the original and instead used the backend to deviate into a virtuosic solo, reminding us of his primary talent—a skilled pianist. And then there was “Jesus Children of America.” On its own, the Innervisions’ gem doesn’t need much work, if any at all. So, as the group settles into what seems to be another honest presentation, they then effortlessly transition into John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” If for nothing else but its spiritual connectivity, I appreciate the gesture. It speaks to a greater tradition, both sonically and thematically.
And that was the concert. Eric Roberson was incredible. Casey Benjamin is Casey Benjamin. So, that’s never not amazing. Those that went other nights may have caught the impeccable timing of Questlove or the endearing voice of Gretchen Parlato, but I think this series is more about the big picture. For Robert Glasper, this supposed “jazz artist” to critically present the music of Stevie Wonder is incredibly fascinating. When you couple this concert with his recent Grammy nominations, you realize something: Robert Glasper is doing “other people’s” music better than they are. Seriously. Consider the fact that he’s successfully navigated Jazz, Hip-Hop, and now Soul and R&B, the latter for which he may receive the highest of accolades. Essentially, he’s approached music as just that—music. My longstanding thesis on his career was that he was constructing the blueprint that would be beginning the mainstream revival of Jazz, but I’m starting to think that the label itself isn’t even necessary.
On a Friday night in Harlem, I heard the deconstruction of types. I listened to music. It captured the inner beauty of Soul, the rhythms of Jazz, and the showmanship of Hip-Hop. There is no absolute category, no legitimate box to place it in. Oddly enough, the same could be said about Stevie. I suppose that makes this a fitting tribute. When people ask me what type of show I went to, I can’t say “Jazz” and I sure as hell can’t say “R&B.” What I heard was simply, good music. And that’s my favorite kind.
Words by Paul Pennington (@paulpennington)